Wessels Living History Farm - York Nebraska Farming in the 1920s
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Picking Corn
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  Photograph of farmer plowing a field with horses.  
A farmer plows a field with a team of draft horses.

In 1920, a revolution farm machinery was just beginning. In York County Nebraska, most farmers were still farming with horses, like many of their counterparts across America. Horses or mules pulled the rudimentary machines that plowed the soil, planted seeds, and harvested a crop. Picking corn and other harvest tasks were done by hand, but machines were used to shell the corn and thresh grain (mechanically separate the wheat or oat kernels from the straw).

But a few manufacturers had begun building mechanized tractors, planters, cultivators and harvesters. In the late 1800s, there had been a few steam tractor models built and sold. Even by 1905, there were only six tractor makers in the entire United States. By 1920, there were more than 160 tractor makers selling hundreds of different models powered by a variety of fuels. A year later there were 186 different different companies and the number of tractors on farms approached 200,000.

Then & NowSee a comparison between the work that horses can do plowing a field compared to succeeding generations of tractors in this interactive movie feature.

Herbert Heine remembers when his father switched from horses to a tractor.

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Herbert Heine Video
Sometimes neighboring farmers pooled their funds to buy a big piece of equipment together and spread the cost. Other times, one owner would rent his threshing machine out, moving the machine from farm to farm, charging a fee to thresh the grain. Although steam- and gasoline-powered tractors had been available for several years, few farmers wanted or could afford these big, heavy machines in the early 1920s. A smaller, lighter tractor had been developed by 1926. By 1930, most Nebraska farmers had traded their horses for tractors. By using tractors, farmers could plow, plant, and harvest more acres with fewer workers.

  Photo of an steam tractor.  
An early steam-powered traction engine.

Harvey Pickrel talks about some difficulties in adapting to the new tractors.

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Harvey Pickrel Video

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that it took 40-50 labor hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat on five acres with a gang plow, seeder, harrow, binder, thresher, wagons, and horses in the 1890s. By 1930, it took 15-20 labor hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat on 5 acres with a three-bottom gang plow, tractor, 10-foot tandem disk, harrow, 12-foot combine, and trucks.

For corn, it took 35-40 labor hours in 1890 to produce 100 bushels on 2.5 acres with a two-bottom gang plow, disk and peg-tooth harrow, and 2-row planter. By the end of the 1920s, it took 15-20 labor hours to produce 100 bushels of corn on 2.5 acres with a 2-bottom gang plow, seven-foot tandem disk, four-section harrow, two-row planters, cultivators, and pickers.

Written by Claudia Reinhardt.


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